Midlife crisis leads to new career as an innkeeper

• The B&B with the 'pooka presence' reflects a major shift in Beth Harvey's outlook on life.

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By KEN TRAINOR

In this world, Elwood, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant. Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant.
â€"Elwood P. Dowd (aka Jimmy Stewart), "Harvey"


Beth Harvey recommends pleasant, too. For a long time, though, she was one unhappy woman.

"My possessions were weighing me down," she said. But a "massive midlife spiritual crisis" took care of that.

"I started questioning everything I had been taught," the 47-year-old recalledâ€"that the purpose of school was to get good grades so you could get into a good college so you could get a good job so you could make a lot of money and consume conspicuously.

"That's what this house represented to me," she said.

It's a big house. About five years ago, she bought an old house on the 100 block of South Scoville, tore it down to the barest of nubs, a mere technicality to avoid making it a true "teardown," and built a massive new brick structure that neighbors weren't very pleased about because it didn't fit the character of the neighborhood.

The plan was to sell it and make a bundle in order to afford the aforementioned conspicuous consumption. When we profiled her in January 2003, Harvey was asking $899,000 for the 14-room edifice with six bedrooms and four full baths.

The problem is, it didn't sellâ€"even after putting up a For Sale sign, violating one of the basic tenets of the Oak Park moral code. That didn't exactly endear her to the surrounding neighborhood either.

Finally, "I woke up one day and said, 'I can't do this anymore.'"

She got rid of her Infiniti Q45 and bought a Hyundai. She took her jewelry and auctioned it off on eBay so she could pay the hefty mortgage. She moved down to the basement apartment with her daughter and took an oath of simplicity.

"I quit being angry," she said, deciding "there's a reason the house isn't selling."

She went through the proverbial "dark night of the soul," and when she came out of it, decided to turn her private palace into a public Bed & Breakfast.

"I decided to align my energies with something that many people might call God." Her search for meaning led her to a different model of living, one based on service.

"I had always been praying, 'God, give me.' That didn't work. I reached a point where I wanted my life to be about sharing my gifts, my assets and resources. Through service I could heal, and heal myself in the process."

She felt she was being asked to become an innkeeper. OK, technically it was her daughter's idea, and at first she really didn't want to do it.

"I didn't cook," she said. "I had always had cleaning people. I didn't think I would be good at it."

Her prayers turned into a "demand for an audible conversation with God." She wanted an answer and it came.

The result is Harvey House. You can't miss it. It's the one with the large wooden cutout of a white rabbit in front. No, not Beth's Adventures in Wonderland. The allusion is to Harvey, the 1950 Jimmy Stewart film about a man and his 6-foot-3 1/2-inch imaginary friend.

The movie is one of her favorites, and she has several DVDs for guests to view if they wish. She says she even lets them take a copy home if they promise to mail it back.

Harvey (the imaginary rabbit, that is) is described in the film as a "pooka," a light-hearted, fun-loving presence from Celtic mythology. And she believes something of that presence is captured at her inn. Guests say they feel the energy.

"This house has a pooka presence," she says. "Every household needs a pooka."

They even feel it on her website. Harvey (the innkeeper) was a self-employed software designer before her lifepath changed, and it shows up on the Harvey House site which includes photos of the food, the kitchen and the Jimmy Stewart Suite, as well as shots of the OPRF walking track, Ridgeland Common pool and Farmers' Market, all located within a short walk.

And every page on the website contains a rabbit icon. Click on it and you can "listen to a fun clip from the movie Harvey."

Since she received her B&B business license from the village in September 2003, the response has been heartening.

"That first day," she recalled, "we had 21 online reservations within 24 hours. We've been enormously blessed."

She spent most of that first day in tears though. "I had no idea how to run a B&B," she said.

She learned to cook by consulting her bible, On Food and Cooking, The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, by Harold McGee. In just over a year and a half, Harvey said, she's improved to the point where "we're coming out with our own cookbook."

Today, she says they average about 65 percent occupancy. Approximately 30 percent of her guests are repeat customers now.

She has five rooms, three for overnight stays and two for longer duration (eg. someone relocating to the area who might stay up to five months). She estimates she's invested anywhere from $20,000 to $65,000 per room. All have private baths and all but one have fireplaces. The rooms are as insulated as "a sound studio," she said, so noises from outside don't get in, and more importantly, noises from inside don't get out.

"These people need privacy," she said.

There are five parking spaces in back and guests go in and out of the side entrance, so many of the neighbors aren't even aware of the commerce.

The innkeeper who no longer wears jewelry and fancy clothes and who found her possessions had become "a ball and chain," still buys very nice things, but now they serve the service model, making her guests' stay as enchanting as possible.

"My tagline is: you're entering another world." She describes her favorite room as "W Hotel meets the Orient."

"It's a special room, magical and meditative. It has the greatest presence of light."

Many of her guests, she said, use her inn as a retreatâ€"everyone from religious groups to mothers who need a getaway to rejuvenate. Prices range from $135 to $210 a night, though you can practically name your own price midweek. About once a month or so, she lets someone stay freeâ€"eg. if they're in town for a funeral. "I believe in gifting forward," she says.

The best thing about the change in her life circumstances is that it has allowed her to become a more focused mother. And her daughter, she says, loves the interactions with the guests.

"I ended up with my own business," she said, "which I never would have chosen on my own. I don't care if I make a lot of money. It's been really good."

And all it took was a total spiritual transformation."I never thought that this is what I would find when I came out the other side."

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